- Mike Reiss, ESPN New England Patriots reporter
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Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots:
1. Watching rookie Patriots tight end Zach Sudfeld in training camp and preseason games, anyone else ask the question: How could he possibly have gone undrafted? There are players that slip through the cracks every year and Sudfeld's situation looks like a perfect storm. Here are some of the reasons why:
Nevada's offensive system creates projection. Bill Belichick made this point on 98.5 The Sports Hub before Friday's game: Nevada, from his view, ran what was essentially a four-receiver pistol-based offense and Sudfeld was basically a slot receiver. So teams had to make a projection on Sudfeld by asking the question, "Is he a receiver or tight end?"
Limited statistics before his senior season. Sudfeld wasn't entirely on the scouting radar before the 2012 season. He hardly had any statistics at that point, so teams had to catch up to him.
No combine invite. While those who don't get invited are still drafted each year (e.g. Sebastian Vollmer in 2009), this didn't help Sudfeld based on the fact he was already playing catch-up based on limited statistics before his senior season. Sudfeld did play in the East-West Shrine Game.
Injuries. Sudfeld had a thicker-than-normal medical file, the result of undergoing six surgeries while in college, including two for a seriously broken leg.
There were 16 tight ends selected in the draft. Any team, including the Patriots, could have made Sudfeld a 17th. Watching how well he's performed to this point, it reflects some of the inefficiencies of the pre-draft process.
2. Here is another factor that led Sudfeld to New England, which is a credit to both the team and his agent, Scott Smith of XAM Sports. The Patriots annually keep at least one or two undrafted free agents on their 53-man roster, assuming those players have earned the right to stick. The track record over Bill Belichick's 14 years as head coach speaks for itself in that regard as Belichick's general philosophy is that "it doesn't matter your draft status, where you came from, or what you've done before getting here, everyone gets a clean slate." Smith and his agency obviously did their research, knowing that they were sending their client to a franchise where he'd get a fair shake if he deserved it (later, the unexpected turn of events with Aaron Hernandez also helped). Not all franchises are created equal in that regard. Just ask any agent about that and most would agree.
3. This is what Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said about the team's receiving corps on sports radio WEEI back on May 23: "By mid-training camp, we should know who I am most comfortable throwing to." We've reached that point and who would have thought that undrafted rookie receiver Kenbrell Thompkins would be near the top of the list? After a bunch of questions in the spring, it now seems certain, barring injury, that the Patriots will enter the year with their youngest-ever receiving corps in Belichick's 14 years as coach: Danny Amendola (27), Julian Edelman (27) and rookies Thompkins (25), Aaron Dobson (22) and Josh Boyce (22). Special teams captain Matthew Slater (27) will make the roster and serves as an emergency option. There figure to be some early growing pains, but it's a group with a higher ceiling than we've seen over the last few years.
4. Because the Patriots open the season against the Bills in Western New York on Sept. 8, we're naturally keeping a closer eye on the Bills than the norm. And what unfolded Saturday was most significant, with rookie quarterback EJ Manuel being shut down for the remainder of the preseason after experiencing swelling in his knee. Manuel will undergo a "minor" knee surgery, according to the Bills. If Manuel was healthy, it was hard to envision veteran Kevin Kolb beating him out for the starting job based on his strong start to training camp and the preseason. Facing Kolb would seemingly be an advantage for the Patriots, and based on the present snapshot, it looks like that's what it could be on Week 1. Then again, it was Kolb who helped direct the Cardinals to an unexpected 20-18 road victory over the Patriots in Week 2 of last season.
5. It is often said that accuracy and decision-making are the two most important characteristics for a quarterback to have, and if the Patriots were grading Tim Tebow on those areas in Friday night's game, the marks would almost certainly be extremely low. It looked like a decisive step back for Tebow (1 for 7 for minus-1 yard passing), even when viewing him through the lens of a "running" quarterback. Belichick isn't one who usually overreacts to one performance, so I don't think it will necessarily cost Tebow a roster spot, but it's hard to forget a performance like that. That one left a mark.
6. From the amateur scouting viewpoint: After watching three days of joint practices between the Patriots and Buccaneers, and then Friday's preseason game, I wouldn't be shocked if Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano turns to 2013 third-round draft choice Mike Glennon as the team's starting quarterback over Josh Freeman. Glennon's arm strength is solid, and among other things, I liked the way he bounced back after throwing a pick-6 to Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan on Friday night. That type of resolve and mental toughness is what is required to have a chance at the game's most challenging position. We've heard a lot about quarterback battles like Mark Sanchez/Geno Smith (Jets), Michael Vick/Nick Foles (Eagles) and EJ Manuel/Kevin Kolb (Bills), around the NFL, but I'm wondering if Freeman/Glennon might be one that some are sleeping on.
7. Some wondered if perhaps Bill Belichick's viewpoint on the value of joint practices with another team might have been altered after the last two weeks in which Eagles cornerback Cary Williams started a scrap and Patriots quarterback Tom Brady sustained a bruised left knee when left tackle Nate Solder was bull-rushed by Buccaneers defensive end Adrian Clayborn. Asked late Friday night if anything that had happened over the last two weeks would change his opinion, Belichick was effusive in his praise. "There's not anything I would change about working with these two teams the last two weeks," he answered. "They've been very professional and cooperative."
8. Over a two-day stretch at Gillette Stadium this past week, the team's depth chart apparently went missing. How else to explain remarks made by Belichick on Wednesday and then after Friday's game? On Wednesday, Belichick was asked about a large rotation of receivers and tight ends playing with the first unit, and interrupted the questioner by saying, "There's no first team, at least none that that I'm aware of." But on Friday after the game, Belichick was touching on the offense and said, "We had a lot of plays on offense in the first half, a lot with our first group and then quite a few plays with those two-minute drives at the end."
9. One team that I think could be better than some people project is the Cleveland Browns. I see more talent than one might expect from a five-win team in 2012, and envision them being well-coached with their new regime. Also like their schedule, thinking they match up well with the AFC East, as well as the Jaguars and Chiefs in other AFC play. Also, they should compete well with the NFC North. Don't think eight wins is an unreasonable expectation for the Browns, even playing in the difficult AFC North.
10. Red Sox president Larry Lucchino told "Boston Herald Radio" earlier this month that he views the Patriots as one of his team's rivals. The feeling apparently isn't mutual. "Our rivals at the Patriots are the AFC East primarily," president Jonathan Kraft said on 98.5 The Sports Hub. "I'm a huge Red Sox fan, some of my greatest memories growing up; I tell people still in my top seven sporting memories I was lucky enough to be at a bunch of the '75 World Series games. ... We've been Red Sox season-ticket holders as long as we've been Patriots season-ticket holders. I'm not sure I view it as a rivalry. ... I think what he probably meant is that each of the teams in town is trying to be the best sports entertainment product we can be. And we watch what each other does, and try to keep it at the same level. In that regard, I don't view it as a rivalry. To me, it's existing in the same space and trying to be as good as the other person. Our rivals are the guys we play on the field. I bet that's what Larry meant by that, or I hope he did. I would never view the Red Sox as a rival. I don't love baseball the way I did growing up, but I do love the Red Sox the way I did growing up."
11. If there is one area on the Patriots' roster that would be cause for concern for the personnel and coaching staff, it's hard to think anything would top defensive tackle behind Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly. It has looked like a pretty big drop-off after the top two and that's why I wouldn't be surprised if the club signs/claims a big veteran defensive tackle as teams around the NFL trim rosters later this month. Those types of players, as Bill Belichick has noted in the past, can be some of the toughest to find. This is where we're reminded of how the Patriots were planning on first-year player Armond Armstead being a big part of the mix before he landed on the non-football illness list after undergoing surgery for an infection.
Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots:1. Watching rookie Patriots tight end Zach Sudfeld in training camp and preseason games, anyone else ask the question: How could he possibly have gone undrafted?